Touring Civil War Battlefields With Ta-Nehisi Coates
I am just about finished reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book, Between the World and Me, which is essentially an extended letter to his son, Samori. It’s incredibly powerful. Coates reveals a world – from the violence of the streets of Baltimore to police brutality – that I will never fully understand. What I truly value in his writing, however, is the way he weaves the past into his observations about his own childhood and the current racial environment. At times the present and the past are indistinguishable in his hands.
While I was hoping for a bit more on the Civil War and memory what Coates does offer is incredibly thought provoking. Here he describes visiting the battlefields of Petersburg and Gettysburg, which caught my attention when he first wrote about it at the Atlantic a few years ago.
I don’t know if you remember how the film we saw at the Petersburg Battlefield ended as though the fall of the Confederacy were the onset of a tragedy, not jubilee. I doubt you remember the man on our tour dressed in the gray wool of the Confederacy, or how every visitor seemed most interested in flanking maneuvers, hardtack, smoothbore rifles, grapeshot, and ironclads, but virtually no one was interested in what all of this engineering, invention and design had been marshaled to achieve. You were only ten years old. But even then I knew that I must trouble you, and this meant taking you into rooms where people would insult your intelligence, where thieves would try to enlist you in your own robbery and disguise their burning and looting as Christian charity. But robbery is what this is, what it always was….
Do you remember standing with me and your mother, during one of our visits to Gettysburg, outside the home of Abraham Brian? We were with a young man who’d educated himself on the history of black people in Gettysburg. He explained that Brian Farm was the far end of the line that was charged by George Pickett on the final day of Gettysburg. He told us that Brian was a black man, that Gettysburg was home to a free black community, that Brian and his family fled their home for fear of losing their bodies to the advancing army of enslavement, led by the honored and holy Confederate general Robert E. Lee, whose army was then stealing black people from themselves and selling them south. George Pickett and his troops were repulsed by the Union Army. Standing there, a century and a half later, I though of one of Faulkner’s characters famously recalling how this failure tantalized the minds of all “Southern” boys–“It’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun….” All Faulkner’s Southern boys were white. But I, standing on the farm of a black man who fled with his family to stay free of the South, saw Pickett’s soldiers charging through history, in wild pursuit of their strange birthright–the right to beat, rape, rob, and pillage the black body. That is all of what was “in the balance,” the nostalgic moment’s corrupt and unspeakable core.